Oh, Miami, America’s tropical fever dream. The city along Biscayne Bay has been half a fantasy since at least the 1950s, a raffish, pastel-colored, Art Deco, bikini-clad vision of escape. Miami Beach, the smaller island city floating just across the bay, sits at the heart of this illusion, a stroll along South Beach promising a chance to briefly escape the harder edges of daily life.

Yet these two communities built on dreams are coming to grips with a reality some of the nation continues to deny: the impact of global climate change. On a spring day so perfect it seemed like it was conjured up by the tourist bureau, Reinaldo Borges, AIA, one of the region’s earliest and most fervent advocates of the need to respond to rising sea levels, took me around downtown Miami Beach to see how the city is adapting to the new reality. We strolled down streets and sidewalks that have been raised as much as 31 inches in recent years to deal with the “sunny day” flooding that had been coming with the highest tides, water rising up through the porous limestone that forms the bedrock in Miami Beach and the larger city across the bay. “This used to be the elevation of the sidewalk,” Borges says, pointing to what is now a sunken storefront operating out of a shallow half-basement. “This building needs to be replaced,” he adds bluntly. A block or so farther down, he points approvingly to a newer Publix grocery store, which has gracefully incorporated a rise in elevation that lifts it above flood levels. “This is a good adaptation.”

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Sunny day flooding in Miami
Phillip Pessar Sunny day flooding in Miami

Adaptation. Resiliency. Evolution. I heard these words over and over again as I met with architects, urban planners, and city officials. One thing I did not hear is denial. “Those days of denial are over, at least here in Miami Beach,” Susanne Torriente, chief resilience officer for Miami Beach, tells me.

“The debate now is not if we should do something, but what we should do,” says Elizabeth Camargo, AIA, who heads the Resilience Recovery Task Force at AIA Miami, one of two different groups the local chapter has set up to deal with climate change.

Can Miami stand its ground, and what will it look like if it does? How will the city and its built environment evolve? The answers I heard involved solutions as mundane as better storm drains and as futuristic as a platform city.

If the debate is over, it’s because the impact of climate change has already arrived in South Florida: increasingly severe storms, sunny day flooding, and rising sea levels—the ocean here has risen 8 inches since 1950, according to the nonprofit group The worst lies ahead. By the end of this century, the seas breaking along the shore in Miami and Miami Beach could be as much as 81 inches higher, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Even more modest estimates predict an increase of 3 to 5 feet by 2100.

The average elevation of Miami Beach is only 4.4 feet and parts of the city are as little as 2 feet above sea level. Most of Miami has an elevation of 6 feet, but several neighborhoods have elevations of 3 feet or less. And the Miami River, of course, runs through the heart of the city all the way to the Everglades. So you have a low-lying metropolitan area of 6 million-plus people on porous soil with a major waterway tying it to an ocean that is rising more quickly every decade.

Ocean Drive in South Beach
Nejron Photo Ocean Drive in South Beach

And yet people keep building and buying here. Breathtaking modernist mansions dot the water’s edge. Construction cranes hang in the downtown sky in Miami only blocks from the ocean. A word I did not hear during my visit, unless I brought it up first, was retreat. Neither Miami nor Miami Beach has zoned its low-lying or oceanside areas to prevent new construction.

Can Miami stand its ground, and what will it look like if it does? How will the city and its built environment evolve? The answers I heard involved solutions as mundane as better storm drains and as futuristic as a platform city.

“Learning to Live in a Water World”
In August 1992, after Hurricane Andrew ravaged Miami, causing billions in damage and leaving a quarter-million people homeless in Miami-Dade County alone, cities and counties in South Florida adopted some of the toughest building codes in the nation. They require buildings to be able to withstand winds up to 175 miles an hour, use shatterproof glass, and be built with straps to reinforce the connection between walls and roofs. But no one talked much about hurricanes during my visit, except in the context of storm surge. The rising seas are the focus. Among other things, they threaten to impair the city’s drainage systems, particularly if gravity-fed, and lead to saltwater intrusion into the aquifer and the local water supply.

In other words, you can’t just build a sea wall, or simply raise the streets and sidewalks and escape. Borges describes the necessary adaptation as “learning to live in a water world.” Miami Beach, in particular, has “turned itself into a laboratory of climate adaptation,” as a recent article in the Sierra Club’s magazine put it. The island city, which covers just 7 square miles and has less than 100,000 residents, kicked off its efforts in 2013 under previous mayor Philip Levine, whose campaign for office included a TV commercial that showed him kayaking through traffic during a rainy-day flood, vowing to change things. The city initially focused on raising streets, sidewalks, sea walls, installing pumps, updating the drainage system, and adding areas of bioswale, where vegetation traps debris and pollutants from surface runoff.

Residential projects in Miami by Reinaldo Borges

But Miami Beach also changed its building code to encourage new construction raised above the future encroachment of the sea. The minimum elevation requirement is base flood plus 1 foot, but for every additional foot builders go above that—up to 5 feet—they get an offsetting increase in the city’s height limit. “There’s about half a dozen new homes that are taking advantage that,” Torriente told me. Borges, for his part, endorses the value of changing building codes. “What I have experienced is when you codify things, it makes it a lot easier for the architect,” he says. “You can say to the client, ‘Look, here it is. This is what we need to do.’ ”

Borges, for instance, designed a senior citizens’ center in Fort Lauderdale that incorporates a “split lobby” between the first and second floors so, if the waters eventually rise as predicted, the first floor can be sacrificed without causing operational problems. “The idea of treating the second story of buildings in a different way in water world is something we have to start thinking about,” he says.

Monad Terrace by Jean Nouvel
courtesy JDS Development Group Monad Terrace by Jean Nouvel
courtesy JDS Development Group
Monad Terrace section
courtesy JDS Development Group Monad Terrace section

In Miami Beach, Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA, elevated his Monad Terrace condominiums on the South Beach waterfront 11.5 feet, raising even the parking garage above grade. A residence by Rene Gonzalez, AIA, on Prairie Avenue in Miami Beach is built on concrete stilts, lifting it safely above projected flood levels. The landscaping is designed for drainage, and the house even includes a retractable central stairway from the ground level to the living quarters, making it a safe harbor in the face of rising seas. Another Miami Beach residence, designed by Domo Architecture + Design, elevates the living quarters—and swimming pool—15 feet above grade.

The Prairie Avenue residence by Rene Gonzalez

A Miami Beach residence by Domo Architecture + Design

In Miami, the Perez Art Museum, which sits only 75 feet from Biscayne Bay, won an award from the American Society of Landscape Architects for its resilient design. Elevated 10 feet above flood surge levels, the museum integrates a porous-floored garage and paths as well as rain gardens designed to capture water and funnel it back into the ground or the bay. Projects like these illustrate the potential for an architecture that keeps Miami and Miami Beach habitable even as seas rise.

The Perez Art Museum
Osseous The Perez Art Museum

Saving the City’s Art Deco Heritage
Still, such extreme adaptations are not mandated by code or zoning requirements, and Borges and others I spoke to noted that many developers have no interest in the cost of building for ever-rising seas. There’s a lot of business as usual. And as for existing buildings constructed before the threat of climate change, the solutions can be even more difficult. Miami Beach is now grappling with how to protect or adapt the Art Deco and Miami Modernist architecture in its historic districts, particularly the oceanfront buildings that give the city much of its whimsical, pastel-clad character. The issue is contentious, pitting preservationists against architects like Borges, who doubt the viability of adapting many of the historic structures.

Consider Camargo’s 1949 house on a small residential island between Miami and Miami Beach, which has become more susceptible to flooding. She recently considered raising it, but the house has two different foundations and the soft soil can’t handle the jacks anyway. Instead, the company she was working with offered to saw the first floor in half at the 4-foot mark and raise the top part of the house. “On top of that would be a whole new first floor,” Camargo says. The cost was $300,000 and she would have lost cabinets and other custom work on the main floor. “In the end, it was simply too expensive and too impractical.”

Despite these challenges, voters continue to support Miami Beach’s approach. Last November, a $439 million general obligation bond measure on the ballot included significant money for resiliency. “It was put on the ballot and got overwhelmingly approved,” Torriente says. “I think by close to 70 percent, so the residents of Miami Beach really have a desire to adapt and invest in their city.”

Then she posed a crucial question, one that even a city committed to adapting to climate change will find difficult to confront: “So does anyone have the appetite to tell them that change has to occur?”

Miami, on the other hand, is not as far along. In 2017, the city’s voters approved a $400 million general obligation bond issue that included nearly $200 million to finance projects to build resilience against flooding and storm damage. But it wasn’t until this March that the city broke ground on the first project, located in Fair Isle, a low-lying bayside neighborhood. It will raise roadways and include the construction of a drainage system and, in a second stage, a new stormwater pump station. In April, the city also finally approved an update to its zoning code allowing the same height variance as Miami Beach. Critics have blamed political division and inertia for the slower pace of Miami’s effort, but in truth, it faces a larger, more difficult challenge. During a visit to the office of Jane Gilbert, the city’s chief resilience officer, a map on the wall highlighting low-lying neighborhoods vulnerable to flooding—some of the most threatened are away from the ocean—illustrated the extent of that challenge. “In Miami we have water coming from all sides,” Gilbert says.

The city is in the earliest stages of several other resilience projects that they hope to have completed in two to three years. I visited two of them with Shawna Meyer, AIA, a professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture who heads AIA Miami’s Sea Level Rise Task Force. Jose Marti Park along the Miami River, a quiet, gently rolling green space, is prone to tidal flooding. The plan is to re-engineer it to minimize flooding in the surrounding neighborhood while enhancing waterfront access. Gilbert says no decision has been made on what that will entail, but standing in the park, it seemed as if the open space could be adapted to temporarily hold tidal overflow and provide a respite from neighborhood flooding without overly damaging its recreational value.

Miami's Brickell neighborhood
Felix Mizioznikov Miami's Brickell neighborhood

Brickell Bay Drive, located along the city’s waterfront, is a different case, one that gets to the heart of the challenge Miami faces. Brickell, which is Miami’s financial district, has also become a popular, high-rise residential neighborhood, and the city envisions building a linear park and a sea wall to mitigate tidal and storm surges. “This is an area that’s going to require intervention, but as you can see, this is [also] a place where a lot of investment has occurred,” Meyer says, pointing to the towering condo buildings within shouting distance of the sea. Then she posed a crucial question, one that even a city committed to adapting to climate change will find difficult to confront: “So does anyone have the appetite to tell them that change has to occur?”

A Fluid Approach to Urban Design
The problem with a catastrophe happening in slow-motion is that it’s hard to consider it a catastrophe. Even as public acceptance has slowly mounted in the 70-odd years since scientists first discovered evidence of climate change, the power of human denial remains as deep as the rising oceans. The only long-term solution to global carbon emissions has to occur at the international level and must involve the active participation of the U.S. Absent that, there is only so much individual cities can do. With all that Miami Beach has undertaken, Torriente admits the city’s plans are only designed to carry it through midcentury. “We feel the criteria we have in place will take us to 2055 to 2060 and that next generation will have to take us that next step,” she says.

Gilbert says the same about Miami. In a way this makes sense: To take concrete steps today for the worst possibilities, if they end up not transpiring, could be a tremendous waste of resources; it could also leave oceanfront cities looking like beached fortresses out of some science fiction dystopia. And yet, in a place like Miami, where on a bright day the city’s glimmering seafront towers seem to float on the crystalline waves, it’s impossible not to think what if—what if the more extreme projections turn out to be true?

Meyer believes climate change necessitates taking a “fluid” approach to urban design that builds around ecological systems, rather than around “static environments defined by geopolitical boundaries” that defy nature. She points to the way smaller communities in the Mississippi and Louisiana deltas are designed to accommodate the waterways that are a constant part of life.

“How we will populate coastal cities in the age of climate impact [is the] most transformative modern day existential challenge to humanity. The way we look at design, urbanization, and densification needs to be reimagined. It’s an opportunity for big thinking and great innovations.”

Consider a proposal by Isaac Stein, a landscape architect who grew up in the Florida Panhandle and is now pursuing a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. His senior thesis at the University of Miami’s School of Architecture proposes transforming Miami Beach by restoring stands of mangroves on the lower bay side of the island, providing naturally absorbent barriers to storm surges, and creating canals where low-lying streets now run while raising other streets on stilts. Trams and bike paths would take up the traffic in what would essentially become Venice on Biscayne Bay.

Borges invites you to extend your imagination even further with his plans for a “platform city.” He envisions a small prototype community of 6,000 to 10,000 residents living on platforms raised 75 feet above current sea levels—a solar-powered community that integrates sustainable features such as ocean farming and controlled indoor urban agriculture. Borges says he drew inspiration from Japanese plans for floating neighborhoods in Tokyo Bay. “How we will populate coastal cities in the age of climate impact [is the] most transformative modern day existential challenge to humanity,” he says. “The way we look at design, urbanization, and densification needs to be reimagined. It’s an opportunity for big thinking and great innovations.”

Borges’ proposal may seem overly fanciful, until you remember that the seas continue to rise as we fail to confront the underlying causes. I hadn’t been to Miami or Miami Beach for several years before I visited for this story, and I had forgotten how beautiful they are, how the sun and the sea and the bright interplay between the two has been reflected in the character of the built environment. They have always been a kind of dream, a work of the imagination. The tragedy is that, barring an outbreak of global foresight and resolve, they are likely going to need a sustained act of creative imagination, on the scale Stein or Borges is envisioning, to survive.